Investigative Question

How have nations struggled in similar and different ways to achieve economic, political, and social stability? Case Study: Rwandan Genocide and Recovery What were the causes and effects of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda?

Stretching from the World War II years through the contemporary period, former colonies and dependent nations have embraced different political and economic systems in an effort to provide stability and security. Students can study the past thirty years of global history in a comparative context by addressing the question: How have nations organized in the post-Cold War world? Through the study of diverse regions and peoples, students learn in this unit that many nations share similar challenges in attempting to unite. This question can help guide students as they explore common challenges faced by nations: How have nations struggled in similar and different ways to achieve economic, political, and social stability? For example, as in some European countries, the presence of multiple ethnic, linguistic, and cultural groups within the borders of an individual state influenced nation-building efforts in developing regions. Further, many places have experienced civil wars or regional disputes that led to civilian casualties. Dictators continue to rule several nation-states. At the same time, other countries have shifted to civilian governments and popular, free, multiparty elections. In this unit, students can engage in a comparative analysis of postcolonial developments in at least three of the following regions: Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, or China. Students can demonstrate their understanding of the contemporary world through multimedia projects, written reports, or structured oral presentations. Teachers may also want to add a civics component to this unit, in which students are asked to participate in a virtual or real life situation that connects them to the region or topic of study. Newly independent nations faced many challenges in the post-colonial era. These new countries inherited colonial borders that artificially divided some ethnic groups into multiple states. The opposite process was equally destructive: new governments used coercive and authoritarian means in attempts to unify multiple ethnic groups within their inherited colonial borders into nation-states where loyalty centered on the state. In many cases, European nations continued to exercise considerable political and economic influence over former colonies, challenging the autonomy of these states. Serious problems achieving economic development contributed to the lowest longevity rates in the world. While most residents in sub-Saharan Africa experienced modest living for decades, many states have experienced rising standards since the beginning of the millennium. Students might consider more recent developments in Botswana to learn about rising standards of living and engaged citizenship. Several countries contain important natural resources, including petroleum, which may assist economic development and improve quality of life in coming years. One of the greatest challenges to stability in Africa has been the AIDS epidemic, which has killed or disabled otherwise productive laborers and taxed economic resources. Several stable republics exist, however, including Botswana, Ghana, Morocco, and South Africa, where Apartheid gave way to multi-party democracy in the 1990s, though these countries continue to be challenged by an unequal distribution of wealth, corruption, and one-party rule.

Scholars who study the 1994 genocide in Rwanda have identified a number of contributing factors. Economic conditions in Rwanda were very bad. Coffee, Rwanda's major export crop, had dropped dramatically in price in 1985, leading to a decline in income averaging 30 percent per family. A rising population meant that there was little land available for many farmers. Meanwhile, drought and erosion had led to rising food prices. Nevertheless, none of these factors really explains the genocidal events of 1994.

Most experts agree that the principal cause of the Rwandan genocide was a colonial history of divided population groups and promotion of those divisions by certain political leaders in the newly independent nation of Rwanda. After the genocide began, a slow and inadequate response from the international community played a role in the massive death toll. Effects of the genocide were the flight of refugees into neighboring countries, regime change, and spread of related conflict into the eastern Congo Zaire, where further massacres occurred. The post-genocide Rwandan government deployed an intense and effective recovery program based on the assertion that distinct population groups were a colonial creation and did not exist. This government emphasized national unity, economic growth for all, and Gacaca Trials for justice and reconciliation. The sources expose students to the history of ethnic groups and identity in Rwanda, the colonial legacy, international involvement in genocides within nation-states, and the limits of government control and individual rights.

Rwanda was not organized as a nation-state in the precolonial period, although the area was heavily populated. The population was divided into three groups, which had a lot in common, including generally speaking the same language and had intermixed extensively. In order to differentiate them, therefore, the colonizers focused on occupations: the Tutsi were mostly cattle herders, the Hutu (the largest group) were farmers, and the Twa were hunter-gatherers. In 1890 Germany took over rule of the area, which was the beginning of the colonial period. After Germany's defeat in World War I, Europeans assigned rule to Belgium. Following nineteenth-century racial theories, the Germans and Belgians identified the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa as races. Both colonizers favored the Tutsi as colonial administrators and elites, at least until the 1950s. Colonizers wrote that the Tutsi were more "European" in appearance: taller, thinner, and fairer skinned (Source 2), while the Hutu were shorter, heavier, and darker skinned. According to the racial theory, the Tutsi were thus mentally superior and the Hutu mentally inferior. While the Belgians clearly projected their own racial framework onto Rwandan society, historians debate whether the colonizers actually created ethnic divisions that had not previously existed (Sources 1, 2, and 3). The current Rwandan government has adopted the position that there were no ethnic divisions before the colonial era, which shifts the blame for the genocide onto the colonial oppressors. Some historians think that this position goes too far and actually effaces ethnic identities important to Rwandans.

Whatever their origin, by the mid-twentieth century, some Tutsi and Hutu identified strongly with their ethnic groups. There was considerable conflict between political groups organized along divided ethnic lines. This conflict caused the Hutu Revolution in 1959, when Hutu rebels killed many Tutsi and helped lead Belgium to grant Rwanda independence in 1962, in part to escape responsibility for the situation. A Hutu-led government then ruled in Rwanda. This government found it convenient to blame the Tutsi minority for any problems, including economic troubles in the early 1970s. They found it easy to convince much of the Hutu majority that Tutsis were taking the good jobs, or, alternatively, actively sabotaging the economy. Colonial divisions of African land meant that the Hutus and Tutsis lived in parts of the newly independent nations of Burundi and Congo Zaire as well (Source 1).

Out of power in Rwanda, many Tutsis were thus able to find welcoming communities in exile in neighboring states. They organized a political/paramilitary organization, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). RPF paramilitary soldiers raided across the border and attacked the Hutu Rwandan government. In 1990, the RPF launched a full invasion of Rwanda. This full state of war went on until 1993, when the two sides negotiated a temporary peace agreement called the Arusha Accords. However, the assassination of the Hutu dictator, Juvénal Habyarimana, on April 4, 1994, ended the truce and marked the beginning of the Rwandan genocide. A Hutu paramilitary organization, Interahamwe, seized control of the nation and began the slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. To inspire ordinary Hutus to join the massacre, Interahamwe utilized the media, particularly radio stations Radio Rwanda and Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) and the magazine Kangura (Sources 4 and 7). The methods of killing were notably brutal, as machetes were a weapon of choice and availability, and victims were painfully hacked to death (Source 6). As Tutsis tried to hide or to escape from Rwanda, patrols checking identity cards tried to find them (Sources 3 and 5).

The international community was slow to respond, which lengthened the massacre. Though the United Nations (UN) dispatched an Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNIMAR), their troops were intended for humanitarian assistance and barred from officially intervening in the conflict. The UN did not acknowledge the violence as genocide, instead calling it a "civil war." This hesitancy was partially due to the historically ambiguous nature of ethnic divisions between the Tutsi and Hutu, previous failures of intervention, lack of willingness to get involved on the part of the member nations, and perhaps racist sentiments toward the Rwandans. As a result, 800,000 Rwandans were dead in 100 days—both Tutsis and moderate Hutus (Source 6).

The genocide ended in July 1994, with the RPF's successful occupation of Kigali and the establishment of Tutsi leader Paul Kagame as the new president. More than two million members of Interahamwe fled to neighboring nations, expanding the already burgeoning presence of Rwandan refugees in Central Africa (Sources 6 and 7). Even today, the Interahamwe and other rebel groups continue to operate in the region. Over five million people have died and millions more have been displaced since the Congo War of 1998.

After the genocide, Kagame's government was faced with the monumental tasks of both achieving justice for the victims and repairing national unity. Though the UN conducted an International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the trial of millions of perpetrators was largely left to the Gacaca Trial Department, instituted in 1996. Many have praised the Gacaca trial system for its indigenous roots and its emphasis on reconciliation, but these trials have also been criticized for aiming for reconciliation at the expense of justice and exposing many survivors to retaliation. Pro and con sources (Sources 8 and 9) give students the opportunity to evaluate whether the approach of Kagame's government to build national unity is the right response to the genocide.

Teacher background

This secondary-source text, written by historian Timothy Longman from Boston University, is based on the author's research in Rwanda that included interviews with survivors such as Claudette. As the text represents Longman's own organization of information he gained from Claudette's interview, it provides a good opportunity for students to examine the way key details can be presented within a text structure.

This literacy strategy will provide an opportunity to build up students' skills in (1) self-identifying and working through challenging vocabulary words, (2) analyzing the structure of a text, and (3) selecting key details from within different parts of a text's structure.


  1. Introduce the activity. Provide students with context about the nature of the source itself, the content it describes, and the process and purpose of the literacy activity.

    a. In terms of the source itself, it will be helpful to orient students to the fact that this is a secondary source that represents an American's viewpoint of the events through his research and interviews in Rwanda. Emphasize to students that although the text is based on research and real experiences, it is a human creation, and Longman made decisions about what to emphasize and how to organize information based on his own understanding of events.

    b. In terms of understanding content, it may be useful if students have some context about (1) the death of President Juvénal Habyarimana and its effects, (2) what identity cards are and how difficult it can be to determine ethnic identity based on appearance alone, and (3) how sexual slavery can be used as a technique of genocide (see source notes for more on these points).

    c. Describe to students that the purpose of the literacy strategy is to help them dig into this particular text, but also to hone skills they can apply to future texts. They will develop skills in figuring out unknown words and analyzing how a text is structured to help determine key details.

  2. Interpret and discuss the text.

    a. Guide students through an initial whole-class reading of the text. Looking at the first page of the handout, read (or ask a strong student volunteer to read) the text aloud so students have some familiarity with the whole text before beginning to analyze its pieces.

    b. Using the vocabulary section of the handout as a guide, ask students to read the text a second time on their own, circling words or constructions that are less familiar. They can work in pairs or small groups to populate the vocabulary chart with some of the words they think are most important to know and make an initial guess about the meaning based on context and prior knowledge. Debrief these student-identified words as a whole class, clarifying meanings as necessary in the context of the text.

    c. Ask students to skim the text once again and fill out the text structure section of the handout. After giving students a chance to compare their ideas with a neighbor (to maximize opportunities to speak), try to generate class agreement about the function of each paragraph. (Have students defend their ideas with text evidence if necessary.) Have students write shorthand descriptions of these functions in the center bubbles in the chart in section III.

    d. Work as a whole class or in small groups to identify the most important key details for each paragraph. You may allow students to add more bubbles to the charts if they need to, or you may challenge them to select/summarize only the four most important details. Debrief and clarify meaning and significance as necessary.

    e. Guide students through reflection on what this text adds to the investigative question. Have students write and then talk (or talk and then write) in response to the last question on the handout about what the text adds to their understanding of the causes and effects of the genocide.

  3. Extend the learning. This text differs from many others in this inquiry set in that it is a secondary source in which we hear the experience of someone affected by the genocide (Claudette) through the voice of another who was not there (Longman). Have students write and/or talk about how they think Longman feels about the participants and events in the narrative, giving evidence of how some of his language choices suggest this.


10.10a Rwandan Genocide Student Handout

10.10a Rwandan Genocide Teacher Key

  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.

  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.

Because this set deals with genocide, racism, and ethnic violence, students will likely be upset by the content and may have difficulty processing the sources. It is helpful to talk to students about tolerance, respect for others' views, and civil discourse before beginning this topic. It is also critical to point out that this episode is not a special African problem, but to remind students of the genocides of Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, and Bosnian Muslims that occurred in the twentieth century.

Source 5 also includes information about sexual slavery as a survival strategy. Before presenting this source to students, discuss with them the fact that rape has often been a technique of genocide. As they may have experienced in the Armenian Genocide and Comfort Women inquiry sets, students are now old enough and mature enough to examine evidence of a sexual nature. Just as rape and sexual slavery occur frequently in war zones, soldiers and other powerful figures in a genocide campaign terrorize civilian women belonging to the targeted group by raping them. It is also a way to shame men of the targeted group and sometimes even to create a new "race" by impregnating these women. Claudette's sister was fleeing for her life and hiding from Interahamwe genocidaires who would kill her if they found her. When a soldier offered to protect her if she had sex with him, the sister had only two choices: agree or die. Her choice to agree was forced by her terrible situation, not by her personal desire. This is a form of sexual slavery. Students should understand that rape and vulnerability to sexual slavery increase dramatically during a genocide.